There's something exciting that happens when you take a left turn from pop and such to explore the deeper recesses of what can be considered music. You don't really listen for musical content, rather, you try to identify and listen for the small ideas that don't always make sense. It might feel like a childhood memory of a favorite pet, your weird astrological associations to your social security number (No one? Just me? OK, then) or the creeping feeling of existential dread that sits at the back of your neck where things stop having overt meaning and start having a primal impact.
"It doesn't seem that unusual to me," says Jeff Witscher, who performs in Santa Fe on Saturday, Feb. 22 at DIY artspace Etiquette. "I think it's definitely much more abstract, but I do think that there is a narrative quality to it."
Witscher's last album, aggressively titled Approximately 1,000 Beers, is a collection of cryptic sonic experiments that genuinely defy comparison. Acoustic and electronic instruments collide with field recordings captured by Witscher and computerized vocals to create unsettling moods and introspection.
When 1,000 Beers is more concrete, it can be downright menacing. In the track Autobiography, a voice speaks over a simple guitar riff in an strange software drone, rendering the lyrics near indecipherable:
"I put my autobiography into computer software/The results are in/Many bricks were thrown at you/Use them to build some sort of shack or closet to stay inside, and hopefully prepare your revenge."
Witscher's is outsider music; the type of songs you could easily imagine being played as Agent Cooper makes his first trek into the Black Lodge on Twin Peaks. And while it's easy to say it might not be for everyone, Witscher has a different thought process.
"If you really dive into anything, you can begin to acclimate," he explains. "If you spend enough time, you can start to pick up the details and the nuance."
And, by the way, abstract music isn't just sonic body horror and nihilism. Joining Witscher for the show is Santa Fe's Theodore Cale Schafer, another experimental musician/sound designer whose work isn't so neatly categorized. While Schafer's back catalog contains some of the same motifs of alienation found in Witscher's work, most recently, he's released an album of eight ambient tracks titled Patience that share more in common with Deru, Akira Yamaoka or Ben Frost.
"For a long time," Schafer notes, "I wanted to make an ambient album…my idea of what type of ambient album that I wanted to listen to."
So when he was approached by Cincinatti, Ohio-based label Students Of Decay, Schafer finally had the means to create the record, but the rest wasn't so easy.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," he says. "I ended up making two of the songs a year before the rest of the album. Every year I have about three months where I'm creative."
With the album born, though, it has undoubtably been worth the wait. Patience is a stellar example of the ambient genre—deeply entrenched in a love of sound design, tone and mood. At times jarring, at times euphoric—but always self-aware and focused, even if Schafer doesn't quite know what he's honing in on while he's doing the honing.
"It's not necessarily about anything. I think they're just sounds I'm attracted to," he tells SFR. "Thematically, I project words and meaning onto the sounds after I make everything. Even now, it's hard to determine what exactly I was trying to say with my work."
This lack of purpose (or even direct and intentional lean into emotional ambiguity) could have gone in one of two ways: When done poorly, ambient albums might end up dragging needlessly, or worse, leave the listener bored and confused (see Radiohead's entire catalog post-Ok Computer. We get it, Thom Yorke—you like the beep-boops). When executed properly, however, the listener becomes an active participant in the creation of the album itself, contributing missing pieces that have been intentionally obscured; the raw emotional experience. Patience very much lives in this second category.
Experimental music often gets a bad name, but if one ignores those who claim it's just a bunch of LSD-laden, music-less nerdy-bros patting each other on the back about that one time they recorded flicking a lighter and using it as a kick drum, there's so much more to the genre. And if you're looking for a start, Witscher and Schafer make an excellent—if disconcerting—entry point.
Jeff Witscher w/Theodore Cale Schafer:
8 pm Saturday Feb. 22. $10
2889 Trades West Road.